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My back yard

11 August 2017 Author: Richard Blyth

House Building

The world seems to be divided these days:

  • Leave/Remain
  • Like austerity/hate austerity
  • PotAYto/PoAHto

And now:

  • NIMBY/YIMBY

That’s “Not in my back yard”/“Yes in my back yard”. Both are of course American and employ the “back yard” concept not to mean your actual garden but your neighbourhood. The latter is a bit awkward for the grammar pedants among us, but you get the picture.

“YIMBY” movements now exist in many expensive cities around the Anglo world and benefit from sharing ideas. Today, London YIMBY published a report with ideas around housing and planning.

It’s great that the internet is enabling people – usually people with day jobs outside the built environment – to get involved in the political process around solving the housing crisis. Because let’s face it we need all the good ideas we can get, and we need broad political support for them. For too long “public consultation” in planning has seemed to involve a narrow group of vested interests, including a disproportionately high number of retired people.

So what does London YIMBY propose? Three things:

  • “Streets” vote to increase permitted development limits;
  • “Parishes” (or other community) vote to change green belt boundaries;
  • “Mayors” get powers to set their own planning laws.

The report pragmatically proposes quick-win kinds of changes in recognition of political realities at present. However, despite this it does make some quite grandiose claims, for example:

“Without them [“planning laws”] we would not be stuck with slow growth.”

Clearly, the causes of the UK’s low productivity are complex, but as we’ve argued before, better (more strategic) planning of our cities and regions could help boost rather than undermine our economic performance.

The proposal on “streets” is innovative and useful contribution to debate. The author has clearly looked carefully at this issue and explored potential difficulties and pitfalls.

Small-scale ideas are welcome, but we shouldn’t assume they will necessarily make a large scale difference in a short time. How many more people would be able to buy homes ...if these proposals were implemented?

The green belt ideas chime with some of the RTPI ideas around a “social purpose” for the green belt. Yimby proposes useful criteria which would need to be met, for example “ensure that a specified proportion of the new housing is social or affordable housing”. I would only cavil that in fact that is existing policy. The problem is the proportions tend to be low. How about “ensure that ALL of the new housing is social or genuinely affordable”? Also the drawback here is that housing needs do not work at a village scale. Green belt is a regional growth management tool. Our policy is that green belts should only be changed substantially at city-regional level.

The proposal on “mayors” is an interesting step but it is sadly less developed than the others and  seems to talk about the wrong kind of mayors. There is a great deal to be said for giving both metro mayors and counties (but not necessarily county councils) much more ability to both determine their own planning policy and also raise and spend their own revenue. (The two are closely linked.) But Yimby talks about “city mayors” and then says:

“We think the city mayors are likely to find the street updating to be the more effective of the two [ideas] given that much of the green belts lie outside city boundaries.”

The point about the areas covered by combined authorities and metro mayors is that they include green belts. Our current Better Planning Project on Smart City Regions is emphasising the need to plan cities and their surroundings together.

I welcome the widening of the discussion around planning to include new participants: these are exciting times. Small-scale ideas are welcome, but we shouldn’t assume they will necessarily make a large-scale difference in a short time. How many more people would be able to buy homes after year 1, 2, 5 on so on if these proposals were implemented?

The housing crisis is a product of national tax, benefit, pension, infrastructure and planning policy operative over decades and requires integrated and long-term solutions. Take some time to read our view on some of these.

Richard Blyth

Richard Blyth

Head of Policy, Practice and Research, RTPI - @RichardBlyth7